No one knows why the Partanna went down, but the loss haunts the Burin Peninsula to this day
Schooner went out with 25 men for a spring fishing trip in a bountiful season in 1936 — and never came back
It was the 1930s and times were tough in Newfoundland.
The Great Depression, which broke out in 1929, resulted in world trade declining, causing the demand for our iron ore, newsprint and salt cod to plummet. Jobs were hard to come by and many people had no choice but to go on the dole — government relief that was so small that it provided only about half of a person's nutritional requirements.
Our country went bankrupt, we lost our right to govern, and a six-person commission of government was appointed by Britain to try to get us back on our financial feet.
One of the incentive programs by the new governing body was a bounty to encourage shipbuilding. As a result, the Burin Peninsula community of Garnish, which always had a good reputation for building ships, saw the demand for their vessels increase to the point that one year, 93-year-old Melvin Grandy remembers, "Five banking schooners were being built here at the same time."
Garnish — which had a population of about 800 at the time — also supplied many of the men who crewed the schooners sailing out of Grand Bank and other Burin Peninsula deepsea fishing ports.
In the late 1800s, according to the 1933 Royal Commission Report, there were more than 300 vessels carrying some 8,000 men, coming from all parts of the island, sailing to the offshore fishing banks in pursuit of cod.
However, by the 1930s this picture had changed dramatically: only 40 banking schooners, carrying at most 1,000 men, regularly engaged in this fishery. According to the report, the vessels came almost exclusively from ports on the south coast, such as Grand Bank and Burin.
Twenty-one banking vessels carrying 468 men sailed in 1936 from Grand Bank, with many of them being larger schooners requiring up to 25 men each. When you add the number of workers who were required onshore plus extra crews to man the other Grand Bank ships it's easy to see why every year the businesses in that town had to look to the rest of Fortune Bay, St. Mary's Bay and elsewhere to get enough men to make up full crew complements for their banking schooners.
This was the picture 84 years ago, on March 16, when the Grand Bank Fisheries schooner Partanna left her home port, along with seven other "bankers," bound for the offshore grounds. It was the first spring voyage of the year, with frozen herring for bait.
The 144-foot-long banking schooner was built in Nova Scotia in 1924 and in 1930 was purchased by the Samuel Harris Exporting Co. of Grand Bank. Experienced banking skipper Charles W. Anstey of Garnish took command of the 172-gross ton, 11-dory vessel as soon as it arrived in Newfoundland. That first year it enjoyed a successful voyage,
bringing 2,359 quintals of cod to port. (A quintal equals 100 pounds.)
Anstey remained master of the Partanna during the ensuing years and enjoyed his best year in 1934, when he landed 3,988 quintals of fish. That year the 18 local banking schooners caught nearly seven million pounds of cod (66,544 quintals). The salted cod, which was dried on the beaches at Grand Bank, was exported to European and Caribbean markets.
Ten crew members aboard the Partanna, when she left port on March 16, 1936, were from Garnish. One man hailed
from Bay L'Argent, one from Burin, one from Little Bay East; and 12 were listed as being from Grand Bank. However, at least two of the "Grand Bank" men were not originally from that town but moved there from Green's Harbour in Trinity Bay.
Stan Burt, 38, had been employed on the different schooners at Grand Bank as a "doryman" for quite a few years. He had married a local girl, Julia Lee, and was the father of four children ranging in age five to 17. This was the year he was going to get his chance to captain another vessel but the other schooner he was to be "master of" was ondock at Marystown, so he opted to sign on for the Partanna's spring fishing trip.
However, captain Anstey was still short a crew member and Stan's 18-year-old brother, Norman, was looking for work, so he jumped at the chance to join the ship.
Grand Bank historian/businessman Aaron Buffett, writing in his diary on March 15, 1936, noted, "Rev. William Woolfrey (Methodist minister) preached a farewell sermon to the bank-fishermen tonight."
Anxious diary entries
Six of the crew, including the Burt brothers, James Moore, Morgan Hickman and his son Wilson, attended a similar "fishermen's service" at the Salvation Army Citadel in Grand Bank. Before singing the last hymn, When the Roll is Called in Heaven, James Moore's family were told, he rose to his feet and testified ending with, "I'm going out, I may not return. I'm confident in this … when my body goes down, I'm going up!"
The eight schooners left the next day, bound for the Grand Banks. They were all expected to arrive back in port by April 12. By April 10, most of them had returned with good catches of cod, but there was no sign of the Partanna.
"Some anxiety felt for the safety of the schooner Partanna, which vessel left here on March 16th," wrote Aaron Buffet in his diary on April 21.
Three dories, two smashed in by heavy seas, an anchor buoy and trawl flags, all bearing the name of the big banker, have been picked up along the coastline near Trepassey.- Montreal Gazette, May 5, 1936
Three days later, he wrote, "The Partanna is now 39 days out on a fishing trip (frozen baiting) and much anxiety is felt for the safety of the crew of 25."
By now the families of the Partanna crew were very worried. Each day Stan Burt's 14-year-old son, George, was among the dozens of town residents hurriedly climbing to the top of Grand Bank Cape and peering anxiously out the bay, praying for a glimpse of the overdue vessel, but, day after day, there was no sign of it.
Buffet's diary, April 27: "Schooner Partanna 42 days out and no report. The chances for the vessel turning up are very slim."
Then, a tragic entry on April 30: "Reports of the Partanna arrived today. A dory was picked up in St. Mary's Bay. All now give up the vessel as lost."
A May 5 article in the Montreal Gazette concluded with, "Three dories, two smashed in by heavy seas, an anchor buoy and trawl flags, all bearing the name of the big banker, have been picked up along the coastline near Trepassey."
What happened to the Partanna is still a mystery. Some veteran seamen felt she struck submerged rocks off Cape
St. Mary's and was smashed to pieces while other people suspected she was run down by a larger freighter.
The crisp telegram that Grand Bank Fisheries received from the operator at Trepassey on April 30, 1936, read, "Dory
marked Partanna badly damaged with five oars bulkheads pair mitts marked J.C. and bottom of another dory picked up
between Drook and Portugal Cove South this morning," and was signed "Department of Natural Resources."
Anne Riley (née Grandy) was born four months after the ill-fated Partanna went down, and with it, her grandfather, captain Anstey, and her father, Thomas R. Grandy, 31, a doryman.
Her dad dated the skipper's daughter, Bethia, for 10 years before they married. According to Anne, her mom was determined not to marry until the couple had a house of their own. The house was built and the two got married — just 17 months before the Partanna went down.
There's always been a hole that's never been filled.- Anne Riley
Before leaving on the ill-fated trip, Anne's father bought a rocking chair so his wife, who by then was expecting their first child, would have it to rock the baby in. According to Riley, Thomas also told Bethia, "If we have a daughter, I'll buy you the best pair of shoes in St. Pierre."
Captain Anstey was very concerned with the high number of his fellow townsmen who were on the Partanna. Anne Riley's mother had told her he was worried because so many of them were closely related. In addition to his son-in-law, Anstey had three nephews aboard. Two of the nephews, Joseph Cluett and Thomas Cluett, were brothers.
The disaster exacted a heavy toll on Garnish. According to Melvin Grandy, "The 10 men lost on the Partanna was the worst single tragedy ever experienced by our town; there were so many houses with the blinds pulled down."
Just six years earlier, when the schooner Carranza sank, six men from Garnish lost their lives. Several months after losing her husband, Anne Riley's mother received a small amount of money from a disaster fund, but it wasn't long before she had no choice but to leave Garnish to find work.
"She took me with her, first to St. John's and then to Port au Bras, where she would be keeping house for other families," Riley explained.
When winter would come, mother and daughter would return to Garnish to stay with her two aunts. Riley's mother remarried nine years after losing her husband.
"It was hard to accept because Mom had always been both my mother and father," said Riley, who never really accepted her new stepfather, George Cluett, as her father. "I've always felt bad that I thought that way."
She still feels and shows the pain, more than 80 years later, for a father she never knew.
"When I was a little girl I would look out our kitchen window and daydreamed that Dad was going to row ashore in a dory. There's always been a hole that's never been filled," Riley said.
Now living in Marystown, Riley surrounds herself with memories: the rocking chair her mother rocked her in, a photo of her grandfather at the steering wheel of a schooner, a photo of her mother and father and a flowerpot that was a wedding gift to her parents.
In May 1989, G. James Moore was the guest speaker at an event at Grand Bank's Partanna Academy to honour the school's namesake and to unveil a model of the vessel, built by Almer Walters, whose grandfather was a doryman on it.
Moore, whose father was also a doryman on the Partanna, was the eldest of three children and just five years old when his dad was lost. His brother, Howard, was three and his mother, Jane (née Crowley), was three months pregnant with the youngest brother, Clyde, who was born in September 1936.
"It was pretty tough for them growing up fatherless in those Depression years; they were very poor, like many others," said R. James Moore, the son of G. James Moore.
"Nan worked long hours on the beaches all day, from April to November, for very small wages. The most she ever earned was $250 for the eight months of work. While she worked, Dad would look after his two younger brothers and took care of things at home."
Despite the hardships, the three Moore boys graduated from high school at Grand Bank and went on to enjoy successful
careers: James as a teacher and then a career public servant in finance while Howard and Clyde became prominent Salvation Army officers. All three of them are now deceased.
During much of his adult life Jim Moore left no stone unturned trying to find out what happened to the Partanna. In his speech to the gathering at the Partanna School he explained he had spent hours of research and had visited the area where practically all the wreckage from the vessel came ashore. In 1988 Jim and his eldest son went to Portugal Cove South and St. Shott's to ask many of the older residents about the stories he had heard over the years concerning wreckage and bodies coming ashore.
He was consistently told all of the stories were false. Still, he believed the Partanna did come ashore in a secluded part of the southern Avalon Peninsula, "either because of sailing directly for the land due to being off course, or after she was run down by a larger vessel."
His reasoning: the large amount of wreckage picked up in the same general area around Trepassey Bay; and also because in his youth he had heard the many stories of some of the crew making it to shore and perishing or of bodies being washed upon shore and buried quietly nearby.
He came to the conclusion that "there may have been a cover-up in order to keep the real evidence of the tragedy from the families."
The pain and the loss felt by the families of the men of the Partanna still linger today, some 84 years later. Five of the men from Garnish who went down with the Partanna were married and five were single; in addition to Captain Charles W. Anstey and his son-in-law Thomas R. Grandy, they included Joseph Cluett, Aaron White, Joseph Brown, Victor Day, Thomas Cluett, Ernest J. Grandy, Earl Marsh and William Grandy. One man, Kenneth Pike, was from Bay L'Argent; Norman Brown was from Burin and Samuel Good was from Little Bay East.
The 12 members of the crew from Grand Bank included the mate, Morgan Hickman; the ship's cook Edwin Walters and
the kedgie' Wilson Hickman, the kedgy. The others from Grand Bank were brothers, Stan and Norman Burt, Clyde Riggs, Robert
Rose, Felix Baker, William Dunford, James Moore, Clayton Welsh and Willoughby Mullins. Nine of the Grand Bank crewmen were married, leaving 31 children fatherless.